How sustainable are natural waxes?

Martina Heldermann was appointed technical director of KahlWax in January 2016.Cosmetics waxes are hugely sustainable as they are often by products or produced in a controlled way. Martina Heldermann from KahlWax reveals insight into the value chain created by wax raw materials and how to monitor their source.

Sustainability consists of three pillars: environment; economy; and society. Every pillar has a regional, national, and global level of consideration.

Quite often, sustainability, organic certification and fair trade are linked. Controlled cultivation under specific rules like organic agriculture improves the transparency of the supply chain and enhances the likelihood of sustainability. This also applies to fair trade - a concept that is crucial, especially where raw materials from developing countries are concerned. However, cosmetics raw materials do not necessarily need to be certified organic and originate from fair trade practices to be deemed truly sustainable. Consider natural waxes.

Here sustainability should encompass the use of renewable resources while guaranteeing surrounding flora and fauna are not damaged during harvesting, or in establishing new plantations.

Bees WaxAnimal-derived beeswax

A crucial aspect of sustainability for animal-derived beeswax is how the bees are kept and treated.

Wild honey bees produce wax that is collected by female hive workers using it for the structural stability of the comb and honey-storage cells. Nowadays beekeepers use high quality beeswax for casting honeycomb slabs. This is introduced into the beehive and eases a bee’s life as it only needs to maintain the structure of the hive and not build it from scratch.

After honey is produced and stored in the honeycomb, the bees close the filled comb with freshly produced cap wax. To gather the honey, the beekeeper removes the cap wax and centrifuges the honeycomb slabs. The slabs and cap wax are reused subsequent to cleaning and filtering the crude wax. This harvesting process is highly sustainable; as long as there is a demand for honey the beeswax by-product will be available.

However, to be sure the wax is from a sustainable source, it is crucial to know whether the commercial producer focuses more on efficiency and volume, or follows a natural approach.

Plant-derived carnauba wax

Copernicia Cerifera Cera or carnauba wax is sourced from the Brazilian palm, Copernicia Prunifera. These trees grow wildly in the northeastern Brazilian states of Piaui, Ceara, and Rio Grande do Nort. Due to the warm and dry climate of these regions, the leaves secrete large amounts of wax to maintain hydration.

Before its leaves can be harvested for the first time, the palm needs to be around 40 years old. Consequentially there is no new or ongoing strategic cultivation. When the leaves are harvested, short pieces of their stems, or at least some leaves, have to remain to guarantee re-growth.

These measures ensure the sustainability of carnauba wax, while it is also readily biodegradable. An organic certified version of this wax is available, where water is used as the extraction agent.

A selection of the waxes produced by KahlWaxIndustrial processed waxes

Different to the wildly harvested carnauba wax, rice bran and sunflower seed wax are both relatively industrially processed waxes. By volume, sunflower seed oil is the fourth most important vegetable oil in the world, after palm, soy, and rapeseed oils. The biggest producer countries of sunflower seed oil are Ukraine, Russia, and Argentina.

Unrefined sunflower seed oil, obtained by cold-pressing and extracting hulled seeds, contains approximately 0.3 percent wax. In the oil refining process, the raw oil is degummed or hydrated to remove gums and other hydrophilic particles such as sugar. Subsequently, winterisation takes place to remove parts of a higher melting point from the oil, such as waxes or triglycerides. This is done by slowly cooling the vegetable oil.

There is no organic or fair trade variation of sunflower seed wax available. However, as long as the sunflower fields are maintained in an environmentally friendly manner and cultivated sustainably, the wax can be considered a sustainable raw material.

Rice bran oil is obtained by extracting or pressing the husk of a rice grain that has been separated from the grain. The commercial yield of edible oil is about five percent, depending on the extraction conditions. The refining process involves de-waxing, which results in two by-products: de-waxed oil and a crude wax. The latter can be further refined to obtain rice bran wax. This is only used in cosmetics and related applications, making rice bran wax highly sustainable, though critical observation of its origin is advised. Unfortunately, no organic or fairtrade grade of rice bran wax exists.

Myrica fruit wax

Obtained from the Myrica Pubescens tree, Myrica fruit wax is entirely sustainable. The tree is native to Latin America, mainly Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The sustainable harvesting of the fruit is carried out by hundreds of farmers and monitored by the Union for Ethical Bio Trade (UEBT), which promotes the sustainable use of biodiversity in Colombia as a mechanism for its own protection.

The wild growing berries of the tree are covered in a thin layer of wax that protects them from moisture loss and keeps the fruit peel elastic. Thanks to this and the characteristic balsamic odour of the berries, they are not consumed by small animals.

Once harvested, the berries are dried and washed in hot water. The wax is then boiled out, skimmed off of the surface, and carefully filtrated for purification. This is considered a 100% natural process. All of the waxes discussed in this article can be sourced in South Africa from Savannah Fine Chemicals, the authorised agent for KahlWax.

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